Breaking through burnout: strategies for sustainable scaleup leadership
March 8, 2024

Breaking through burnout: strategies for sustainable scaleup leadership

The challenges of growing our scaleup sometimes feel like a complete grind. As we explored in the previous two articles in this series, we can begin to experience some of the warning signs of burnout. Perhaps you recognised that you were struggling to shirk off that feeling of being tired and drained most days. Or it could be that you recognised you feel a bit trapped in your scaleup business and can't see a way through? Or you are feeling isolated. Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed or are struggling to make decisions.

If you missed either of those articles, you can better understand founder burnout here and then learn how to spot the early signs of burnout here.

As discussed in our last article, any of these feelings could be an early warning sign that you are spending too much time on the negative side of stress. If we're not careful, getting stuck in that cycle can lead us towards burnout. So, it is vital to take action now to change direction and find a new way forward.

Founder burnout risk and your scaleup performance

In the last article, we introduced some of the findings from the Balderton Capital research from 2023. There were several insights which validate why this is such a critical area for us to be aware of:

  • 84% of respondents felt there was an expectation to always work long hours to be successful
  • 80% agreed that it was essential to maintain a personal life outside of work, but 68% regularly had difficulty switching off
  • Only 24% of founders say they regularly connect with peers for support.

Alongside these results, their research also examined the impact of stress on performance, with 88% agreeing, either strongly or somewhat, that excessive stress reduces the ability to problem-solve and think creatively; 89% agreeing that excessive stress can result in poor decision-making; and 71% agreeing that this can lead to a high-pressure culture that makes it difficult to attract and retain the best talent.

The Balderton research is not the only source. This area has become increasingly fascinating in academic research and the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. One of the leading academics in research into entrepreneurs' cognitive, affective and behavioural strengths and vulnerabilities is Dr Michael Freeman from the University of California. In 2015, he published his study findings of 242 entrepreneurs compared to 93 "demographically matched comparison participants." He found that entrepreneurs reported significantly higher symptoms of lifetime mental health conditions. Comparisons between employed workers and entrepreneurs show that founders face significantly more challenging circumstances due to the complexity of the challenges faced, greater levels of responsibility and the uncertainty of success, or even what the next day might bring. And the reality of having less of a support network further drains founder resources and mental wellbeing.

The downward spiral

These insights are entirely relatable. Whether you are part of a known startup ecosystem, such as an incubator, or just decided to carve out your own path, there is pressure to succeed and prove that you have what it takes. Many of us have dependents, friends and family who, while supportive, have also questioned whether this will work and whether it is worth the risk.

As we begin to scale, this pressure increases, as you also have the burden of responsibility for a growing team, headcount costs, and overheads. Beyond these apparent pressures, there is the difficulty of letting go. During the early startup stages, you were involved in every single decision. Each sale. Each client project. As the volume of work grows and the team grows, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be across everything. Of course, you try. And this means you work harder to feel more in control.

We also see founders talking about the business becoming more complex. As you begin to structure into teams, workflows become more involved. Projects need handovers. Tensions arise between teams. The reality of managing a growing team becomes more pressurised.

However, while these changes in the business can further fuel the stress and pressure and contribute to the likelihood of founder burnout, they also have a downward spiralling effect on the team spirit and culture and overall business performance. Under stress, maintaining the constructive and valuable behaviours that enable us to collaborate and work effectively with others can be much more difficult. Tempers shorten. We become far more likely to focus on the negatives. To criticise. To dress down. To undermine. Our people begin to feel stressed, too. They react to these behaviours. They feel unhappy. In-fighting increases. Relationships become strained. The culture has become toxic.

Given the high pressure that founders experience through startup and scaleup phases, it is not surprising that we hear high-profile examples of toxic cultures. WeWork, Uber, and Theranos are just a few of the well-known, hyped scaleup organisations I have written about in this blog article. But there are numerous other examples that we can examine. Whilst extreme, the behaviours and resulting fallout show the immense pressure that founders can feel that can lead to unfavourable outcomes.

Seven actions to avoid founder burnout

Clearly, we need to find a different way to manage our stress levels and recharge our batteries so that we have the resources to deal with issues as they arise. Below are seven practical steps you can take to carve a different path through stress levels.

  1. Leverage the talent and expertise in your team.

    If you have used our 'From Founder to Leader' free workbook, you likely already have this one covered. But in case not, the critical point here is to recognise that you might be trying to hold on to too much. Recognise that you are paying people with some great strengths, so how can you distribute ownership and workload to them more, freeing you up to focus on your most critical, strategic priorities. Click on the link above to download the free workbook for more details.
  2. Define boundaries around your time and energy.

    Technology and shifting attitudes around when and where we work have been great for many, giving us much more flexibility in how we work and live. But, if we are under pressure, or struggling to switch off, we need to take better control of when we are not working. Setting clear work hours and switching off to spend quality time with family, friends and 'me' time can be a critical life-saver in our 'always on' culture.
  3. Design your year in advance.

    Not everything! But, plan out (even roughly) your year so that you have regular downtime and holidays to look forward to. These breaks are essential for recharging the batteries to full power so you can return to work with renewed energy and focus. When I first set up Work Extraordinary, I could have done this more effectively, as I ended up working on every holiday when we were away. One or two calls or coaching sessions, but I could not entirely switch off and recharge. As soon as I started planning our holiday plans a year in advance, everything else was slotted around these plans.
  4. Build a support network.

    Connect with other scaleup founders and business owners so that you have a social support network that can offer mutual support and advice. Go to local business networking events or form connections through online forums. Either way, having a small network of people sharing a similar experience can be invaluable.
  5. Be mindful of looking after yourself.

    Find what works for you personally. It could be more exercise, meditation, or a hobby such as golf or knitting. Identify another activity that you enjoy and enables you to switch off from focusing on your scaleup business. It doesn't matter what it is per se. It is about what it does for you. For me, it is running. Getting out three mornings a week to run a few miles clears my head. But more than that, it also helps me eat healthily and sleep better.
  6. Create a culture that values wellbeing in your business.

    The biggest thing you can do is create a wellbeing culture in your business. By valuing your own wellbeing and role-modelling this for your team, you can improve your personal wellbeing and encourage your team to adopt healthier working habits. This, in turn, will have an energising impact on your business as a whole, which your customers will see when they interact with your team.
  7. Get professional support, when needed.

    Asking for the help of an executive coach could be one of the best things you can do to help you work through your current feelings. Having a safe space to talk things through can enable you to recognise what obstacles you are currently not dealing with and help you to take action. Should you need more specialist help, your coach will recommend this route.


Are you ready to break the pattern of burnout and fall back in love with your scaleup business?

As you read through the actions above, hopefully, these all seem really doable—highly practical steps you can take to begin to make a difference. Do you feel you need to work on this to help you fall back in love with your scaleup business?

Often, we can recognise that we need to do something and even have some options clearly laid out for us, but we need more time to be ready to commit and make changes. This is often the case when our clients join our Founder Coaching Programmes and Founder Focus sessions. It's not the right time to focus on this just now. I've got too many other things going on. If I complete the next '[insert significant milestone]', I will look at this.

There will always be some reason why we can't. But once we have acknowledged that we need to do something, it is then up to us to take action. If any of the areas we have covered through these three articles resonate with you, please do get in touch.

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams and growing organisations to develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through the social channels on this website.

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